Queen’s Birthday Weekend in the Tararuas didn’t quite work out. There was snow back home in central Wellington, nearly to sea-level for the first time since about 1995, and there was easily snow down to 200 metres in the Tararuas. None of this began until Sunday morning, however. As we set out late on Friday afternoon, we were still planning for the possibility of our original intent.
Dates: 29th – 31st May, 2009
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Holdsworth Road-end.
People: Dave, Marie S, Marie H and me.
Huts visited: Holdsworth Lodge (0 nights), Atiwhakatu Hut (0 nights), Mitre Flats Hut (1 night).
Route: From Holdsworth road-end to somewhere past Atiwhakatu to camp on Friday night, Mitre Flats and up then down Mitre on Saturday, back to Holdsworth road-end on Sunday.
[Photos and movies]
After starting out at Holdsworth Lodge, plan A would be to climb up Baldy, then get over Three Kings and Girdlestone to spend a night at Tarn Ridge Hut, drop down over Mitre to Mitre Flats on the following day (possibly with a very early start if we had to fit into a weather window), and walk back to Holdsworth on the Monday.
All four of us began walking at about 7pm. Some time around 8.30pm, we reached the site of Atiwhakatu Hut, now appearing nearly complete from the outside but still with lots going. A guitar from inside the old hut strummed something from Metallica as we approached, quickly identified by Marie S, and one of the builders came to the door to greet us and chat for a bit. He suggested we could camp on the helipad area next to the river not far away, but at the time we were set on carrying on to a river-side campsite below the second track up to Jumbo so we’d have less to walk before a potentially long day tomorrow. We never reached it that night, because sleepiness and undulating awkward tracks won out. About 15 minutes after Atiwhakatu, we set up tents on the track.
Despite having been walking with torches in the early winter darkness since we began, it still wasn’t terribly late. We sat in Dave’s tent for a while considering maps and likely scenarios. Recent weather had left snow on the tops, and although Dave had brought in an ice axe, we weren’t well equipped if the snow proved to be too much. Furthermore, a cold snap and heavy snow warning for Sunday morning meant we might potentially get to Tarn Ridge for Saturday night, and not be able to get out. Without knowing what it was like in advance, and after some lengthy consideration, we decided our best option was probably to avoid committing ourselves to the tops. Plan B was to aim straight for Mitre Flats, walk up Mitre from there, and find something else to do on Sunday, possibly head up to Jumbo and walk over the tops to East Holdsworth to get out on Monday.
Nearly ready to leave at 7am, I pulled on my right boot and was dismayed to see my boot-lace fray into some kind of thin elastic as I pulled it tightly. I was even more dismayed as I pulled on my left boot, only to have on of the lace eye-lets pop off and hit me in the face before burying itself somewhere in the nearby track. Fortunately my boots were still usable and my gaiters to a lot to help them remain tied up, but I think these boots might be on their last legs.
We reached Mitre Flats at 10.45, dropped lots of gear at the hut, had a quick lunch, and within an hour we were on our way up Mitre. The track up Mitre starts with a small amount of clambering followed by a few short and sudden switches, but quickly morphs into a reasonably consistent and fairly direct track upwards through the trees, varying in gradient every so often. It’s not the most interesting track and the truth is that it is consistently up. With the weather not being too fantastic anyway, Marie S decided to head back to the hut while Dave, Marie H and I kept pressing up to the bush line where we promptly decided that Marie S’s idea wasn’t so bad after all. There wasn’t a lot to look at. Any possible visions of wondrous flats of the Wairarapa were being covered by thick cloud, and we decided at that point to turn around and return to the hut rather than press on up to the fog-smothered Mitre.
Three of us arrived back at Mitre Flats at about 3.15 to find Marie S happily settled in. With evening approaching, we spent an hour finding and chopping firewood, and Marie H went off for an excursion with her pack. Sadly it was all too damp, and we never managed to get a proper fire going despite the helpful firelighters that’d been left behind.
As evening approached another 7 people showed up in a couple of groups, all having walked in from The Pines with the alleged intent of walking up Mitre on Sunday. Somehow this seemed unlikely, though, because the forecast from Sunday included a severe snow warning as part of one of the more extreme weather events seen by the region in recent times.
We were all on de-hy BackCountry meals that night, partly as a consequence of late organisation, but also because we’d expected the trip to be somewhat more exerting than it turned out to be with the change of plans. This was the first time I’d tried one, and I have to say I was impressed with my Classic Beef Curry meal, which was quick and easy to prepare (add boiling water and wait), and tasted good enough. Then we just trimmed the top off the bags, ate out of the bag, and so had minimal dish-washing afterwards. The only note was that a 2 person Backcountry Cuisine meal couldn’t possibly feed more than 1 person with the amount of food you get, certainly not in a tramping context when you tend to spend the day burning energy. All four of us had bought a 2-person meal for each night.
Dave, Marie S and I found bunks, Marie H set up a tent outside, and we went asleep with the noble intent of rising at 7pm to be away and off to Jumbo at 8. And thus I woke at 7.20 when Marie S poked up her head and asked if we were supposed to be awake by now. The only answer I had for this was “probably”, but it was easier to ignore any motivation for effort and wait for someone else to do something first. With Dave on the far end also unwilling to be the first to get up, it wasn’t until Marie H came in from outside that anyone really bothered to do anything.
We left over a staggered time between about 8.40 and 9am on Sunday morning. The weather decayed, but it was cold enough to never actually rain, and the forecasts of snow down to 200 metres were happily accurate. Instead of rain we had a combination of snow and hail, but the shelter alongside the ridge there was very little wind, snow and hail both tended to bounce off raincoats (as it does), and this made it a rather pleasant walk if cold at times.
At about 11.15am we crossed the saddle below Baldy, covered in frost, and by now the snow was coming down very persistently, especially in the areas without much tree shelter. There was about a 20 minute slip-slide down the Atiwhakatu side of the saddle, and not long after we met another party of 6 or 7 people who’d come down from Jumbo and were heading for Mitre Flats. We exchanged information, and they told us there was a lot of snow up there. It was an enticing idea, but after a short conference at the track junction a few minutes afterwards, we decided we might just go straight out and find a cafe rather than walk up to Jumbo and spend an extra night in the range when it was seeming increasingly likely that we’d simply need to come straight back down again the next morning due to the conditions.
Now with a cafe in mind, all four of us duly abandoned the idea of lunch. Before 1pm we reached Atiwhakatu Hut during a land-mark moment. The new hut was still getting some final touches, but the builders had nearly finished dismantling the old hut which they’d been living in for several weeks, and happened to have a large bonfire going. It was hot, too. I suppose if we’d been able to burn the hut at Mitre Flats last night, we may have stood a better chance of getting a fire going, too. Oh well.
The final section of this route, between Atiwhakatu Hut and the Holdsworth road-end, is a very well-maintained track, being part of the Holdsworth/Jumbo circuit which is by far one of the most walked tracks in the Tararuas. If there’s something noteworthy about it, which both Dave and I found amusing, it’s the great range of types of bridges that have been used to make up this section. There’s nothing difficult (like 3 wire or 2 wire), but there’s a combination of 1970s swing bridges, more recent suspended plank bridges boardwalks with handrails (and typical 1 Person Maximum signs), strange metallic arch bridges that look as if they’re being re-cycled from some other location, and the list goes on. You can be reasonably sure that if there’s a muddy patch along here, DOC has built a bridge over it. The fun comes in guessing what kind of bridge it’ll be.
This more or less concludes the trip, because we walked out past Holdsworth Lodge at 2.45pm, around 6 hours after we left Mitre Flats. This is the first time I’ve really walked through New Zealand forest during snow, and it was wonderful. I hope I have more opportunities in the future.